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How England could line up in Southgate’s ‘shock’ formation against Switzerland

A hint at a potential formation switch or merely a covering of bases ahead of facing Switzerland?

England’s use of a back three in training on Wednesday ahead of Saturday’s Euro 2024 quarter-final has certainly prompted some intrigue, inviting fans to second-guess the inner workings of Gareth Southgate’s mind.

The idea that the England manager may experiment now is interesting because he has so far appeared resistant to tweak much at all, despite overseeing a string of dreary displays.

Southgate has used the same 4-2-3-1 shape in all four games in Germany and has only made three changes to his starting line-up, all of which have been in the same central midfield position next to Declan Rice.

Southgate has faced persistent calls from the media and supporters to mix things up, but those demands have largely centred around changing the personnel rather than the system.

There has been a clamour for Cole Palmer to get more game time, with the Chelsea playmaker emerging as the “people’s champion”, a role occupied by James Maddison and Jack Grealish at previous tournaments.

Trent Alexander-Arnold’s omission against Slovakia was puzzlingly branded “illegal” by Gary Neville, while Anthony Gordon’s lack of minutes has also led to arched eyebrows. The Newcastle United winger has more cuts and grazes from his bicycle accident than he has completed passes in Germany.

There have been far fewer requests for Southgate to revert to a three-man defence, though.

Here’s why he might be considering it, the potential winners and losers of a tweak in system and how England could line up in their new/old shape in Dusseldorf:

Why the change?

Given that centre-back Marc Guehi is the only confirmed absentee this weekend, adapting the system would be a proactive move to try and counteract their opponent’s strengths rather than a reactive one to compensate for injuries or suspensions.

Switzerland boss Murat Yakin has fiddled about with his attack but left the rest virtually untouched. The Swiss have used a back-three in every game with the wing-backs playing high and wide.

The two wide men have predominantly been Silvan Widmer on the right – who was suspended for the last 16 tie against Italy and replaced by Dan Ndoye – and Michel Aebischer on the left.

Aebischer has made a major impact from that position. A defensive midfielder for his club, Bologna, the 27-year-old has made a big attacking impact for the Swiss, scoring once and providing two assists in the competition.

If England are to switch to a back three it will be with a view to matching their opponents up positionally, although it is of course a system that Southgate and many of his players already know well.

The Three Lions used a three-man defence in all seven of their games at the 2018 World Cup and did so again twice at Euro 2020, against Germany in the round of 16 and Italy in the final.

It is a formation that they are well accustomed to and one that Southgate will hope can get the best out of his players if he decides to make the switch.

England last played with three centre-backs back in September 2022 against Germany in their final match before the World Cup in Qatar.

Winners and losers

A formation shift would be good news for some and bad for others.

Kyle Walker would be an obvious winner. The 34-year-old’s limitations in attack have been exposed from right-back and if Southgate sticks with a 4-2-3-1 his starting place will be under threat. Walker’s place would be more secure in a back three given he has played there consistently whenever England have used that system.

Kieran Trippier might be another beneficiary. The Newcastle right-back has struggled badly on his opposite side, but is the most natural right wing-back in the squad which might give him the edge over Alexander-Arnold.

If Trippier is shifted across to his natural flank, the left wing-back position would be vacant. Luke Shaw is perfect for the role but considering he hasn’t started a competitive game in almost five months it seems unlikely he’ll be chucked in cold.

Bukayo Saka played there for the final 30 minutes of normal time against Slovakia and would be the leading candidate to do so from the off against the Swiss. Saka has been deployed there previously for Arsenal, but it’s evidently not a position that he particularly wants to play in given his comments last week.

Palmer could end up in either camp, depending on where Jude Bellingham is utilised.

If Southgate decides to drop Bellingham deeper into central midfield it would free up a space in the front three for Palmer alongside Harry Kane and Phil Foden. If, however, Bellingham stays in an advanced position, Palmer would have to make do with a place on the bench again.

Three ways England could line up

Option one

(3-4-2-1): Pickford; Walker, Stones, Konsa; Trippier, Mainoo, Rice, Saka; Foden, Bellingham; Kane

Option two

(3-4-3): Pickford; Walker, Stones, Konsa; Alexander-Arnold, Bellingham, Rice, Trippier; Palmer, Kane, Foden

Option three:

(3-4-1-2): Pickford; Walker, Stones, Konsa; Trippier, Mainoo, Rice, Saka; Bellingham; Palmer, Kane

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